At the turn of the twentieth century, as the conservation movement began raising awareness of endangered species, the collecting of wild-bird eggs came under scrutiny. In 1922 in London, Earl Buxton, addressing the annual meeting of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, warned of the “distinct menace” posed by egg-collecting members of the British Ornithologists’ Union, of which Lord Rothschild was a member. Indignant, Rothschild split off and, with the Reverend Francis Charles Robert Jourdain, a cantankerous Oxford-educated ornithologist who bore a scar across his forehead from falling off a cliff in search of an eagle’s nest, formed the British Oological Association. The group, which renamed itself the Jourdain Society after Jourdain died, in 1940, proclaimed that it was the only organization in the country dedicated to egg collecting.
It has not fared well. In 1954, the Protection of Birds Act outlawed the taking of most wild-bird eggs in the U.K. In 1981, some ninety species were declared Schedule 1; possession of their eggs, unless they were taken before 1954, is a crime. Meetings of the Jourdain Society, to which members wore formal attire and carried display cabinets full of eggs, became the target of spectacular raids and stings. By the nineteen-nineties, more than half of Jourdain Society members had egg-collecting convictions, according to the R.S.P.B. One member recently agreed to a radio interview only after insuring that his voice would be disguised.
“An awful lot of the ornithological knowledge we hold dear is based on the work of both professional and amateur naturalists over the course of the last two hundred years, and that involved significant amounts of collecting,” Russell said, as we passed an aisle with Jourdain’s eggs. “But today’s collectors are not what I would call ornithologists. These are obsessives who have chosen eggs as a particularly attractive thing. The suspect part of the attraction is that you’re not allowed to do it.”